Anyone out there who wondered about the excitement of the two-game aggregate goals series should get a real close look this weekend at why this format is so popular around the world. Of course, it's usually a format designed for "blind draw" tournaments and not "seeded" competitions like the MLS Cup Playoffs, which is why three out of four higher seeds are probably none too pleased with the format as we write this morning. But, we're all about excitement here at First XI, so here's a look at what you might see this week.
11. A San Jose lockdown. Not that anyone cares, but I've been out covering the baseball playoffs for ESPN The Magazine for the past three weeks and now, as it all comes to a conclusion, the one theme you're hearing out of Boston is how the Red Sox, after pulling off the greatest comeback in professional sports history, should know better than any team that a series is not over until you win the fourth game. Along the same lines, no team in MLS knows better than the Earthquakes, authors of the greatest comeback in MLS history, that a two-game aggregate series is not over until you've played 180 minutes. Rest assured that Dominic Kinnear is drilling into his players heads that no lead is safe. As for the Wizards, they may have to channel a little bit of their early '03 offense and try to make this game a wide-open affair.
10. A D.C. trap. A 2-0 road win for D.C. United sets Peter Nowak's squad up perfectly for Game 2. What more could D.C. fans ask for than to have their team, arguably the best home team in the league, sitting on a two-goal lead on its own turf? United under Nowak is all about creating turnovers and firing out on the counter. Playing a Metros team that knows it has to score first to make things interesting should play right into United's strength. If United can simply keep the game scoreless for a half, the MetroStars will have no choice but to play an all-out attacking game. We're going to have scoring chances in this game, for sure.
9. Cannon under fire. The Rapids were not the only team to win last weekend despite being outshot. Matter of fact, only the Quakes shot more than the opposition and won. But, we all know the Rapids modus operandi here. It's called bend but don't break. My gut feeling is that if there was ever a team that needed more than a one-goal cushion heading into the second leg, it's the Rapids. That is, unless MVP candidate Joe Cannon is ready to make double-digit saves in the Colorado net.
8. A less-than-frantic Metro team. The MetroStars have, perhaps, too much history to draw upon as they head to Washington. The last two months of this season have been eerily similar to the last two months of the '03 season. Last year, the Metros went on the road late in the season to beat San Jose 2-0 and clinch a playoff spot. This year, they went to Dallas and won, again 2-0, to clinch the playoffs. In both seasons, the team then went into a downward spiral as it headed into the playoffs. Last year, the Metros dropped Game 1 at home 2-0, to New England ... this year, obviously, they lost 2-0 at home to D.C. United. Last year, the MetroStars went on the attack from the outset in Game 2, and ended up surrendering the first goal of the game, making the rest of the day academic. This year, one would expect the MetroStars to play the first half with a little more discipline. A 2-0 lead is not "the most dangerous" lead in sports, as some people like to say, but so long as there's 20 minutes or so remaining when (if?) you cut the lead to one, you've got a puncher's chance. The last thing Metro can do is fall behind by three.
7. A foul odor. All four winners last weekend out-fouled the losers by four or more violations. As Peter Nowak told reporters following D.C.'s win against the MetroStars, "It's a men's game, not a chess match." Let's call a spade a spade, fouling is a tactic in the playoffs. Don't expect it to go away any time soon. It's not violent fouling, either, it's the "oh no you don't" kind of fouls. A guy slips away from a defender and you can almost hear the defender shouting "oh no you don't" as he deliberately ends the play with a foul.
6. Format angst. Last year, everything turned out peachy in the MLS playoffs, as all four teams with "home field advantage" advanced to the semifinals. This year, looks as if we're going to have some upsets ... potentially a pair of 4 v. 1 upsets. Honestly, I wonder, really wonder, how playing the first game away from home is an "advantage" at all. I was willing to give it a year, but right now I'm thinking this setup is 50-50.
5. Wider angles. When the league holds its TV meetings this week, expect the "wide angle" to be a hot topic of conversation. Earnie Stewart's goal against the Metros was surreal. To think in a tight 1-0 game that a guy could find himself 15 yards clear of the defense, walking (yes, walking) in on goal alone, is amazing. Was he off? Looked it. But who the heck really knows? Not one camera angle showed both the ball being delivered and where Stewart was in relation to the defensive line. Even with football lines, it's impossible to determine anything from the video. This, folks, is bad for the game at this level. Offside traps are blown and lines calls are blown an equal number of times in soccer. But, in a pro league, you'd like to think, when a goal is in dispute, you'd at least (as a fan) be able to say who blew it. A representative from the MSG Network blamed it on his camera man on the 18 yard line. Said he was "too tight" to the action. That's not good enough here. We should know if it was the Metro defense or the linesman at fault.
4. Do you believe in miracles? No. Both D.C. United and San Jose are too good to blow 2-0 leads. The MetroStars may have led MLS in goals this year, but ever since they lost a home game to Dallas 1-0, the opposition has quite simply tried to frustrate their attacking players with fouls and physical play. It's worked like a charm. The MetroStars have been shut out four times in the 10 games since Dallas stole that game. As for Kansas City, they've won five games this year by two goals or more this year. But, their last six wins have all been by 1-0 scores. San Jose, like D.C., will be able to exploit any crazy offensive surges the Wizards attempt with quick, precise counter-attacks.
3. Calling Ohio. Wondering when I was going to get around to the Columbus-New England series, are you? Well, here goes. The Crew are not in a bad spot here. Not yet. I give them 75 minutes, in fact, before I'd consider their 1-0 deficit a dire set of circumstances. New England is one team, for sure, that could have used an insurance tally in Game 1. Even as the Revs put up a shutout in Game 1, you could sense a whole lot of anxiety in the back during the final moments of the game. Columbus has come too far this year to have this series stolen from them. I fully expect Edson Buddle and Co. to respond to the challenge and win this thing, either in regulation, or a series tiebreaker. This series, for what it's worth, has "thrilling conclusion" written all over it. I have visions of the Revs desperately trying to stave off Buddle and Jeff Cunningham.
2. Chances are. You can never promise goals in soccer, but this weekend, I'm going to promise you that you'll see a season's worth of scoring chances. Whether it's going to be D.C. and San Jose on counter-attack breakaways or Los Angeles and Columbus firing away on Cannon and Matt Reis, you know that these games will reach a point of desperation, a point where one team will know its season is about to end unless it can put a ball in the net. The onus is going to fall squarely on the strikers. Miss a sitter or two this week and you're going to be reliving it all winter long.
1. The Waffle House. No waffles this week, folks. I reprint what I wrote in my last Cup Final prediction, two weeks ago: "I have this weird feeling about the San Jose Earthquakes this week. I see them rising from the dead somehow, getting a point at the Cotton Bowl and upsetting the Wizards in the conference semifinal. In the East, I'm all Crew this week. Love 'em with all my heart. C-bus will walk past (drum roll) the Revs in the semifinal and score an overtime goal at Crew Stadium to defeat D.C. United and go to its first final."
Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Send your comments and complaints (200 words or less, please) to Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org and he promises to read (but not respond to) all of them. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or its clubs.